My Thank You Letters

I started writing thank you letters the second time I almost died. Having not quite understood the art of the bargain the first time around, I made a deal with myself and God that if I made it out of the hospital, I was going to write thank you letters to people who had helped me. As I was laying in the emergency room, I kept seeing faces of people I knew flash across my eyes, thinking first, “please let this be just a hallucination,” followed by “this is a purely biological result of the anaphylactic shock I’m experiencing and it will pass,” to, when the face-flashing merry-go-round wouldn’t stop, “you have got to be kidding me, I don’t even know who half these people are,” to a defeated “okay, you win, I’ll do it, God help us.” I waited a few days to see if the sense of obligation would pass or if I’d be let off the hook in some obvious way, like if a rugged Scotsman in a kilt was standing on a box in the middle of the city saying ‘thou are set free’, or a neon sign popped up out of the ground explaining “the definition of ‘helped me’ means only those who have saved your life or given you lots of money.” It didn’t happened, leaving me with only one conclusion: thank you letter writing was a bloody brilliant idea, a flawless act of love.

I figured that people get a pass from the ugliness in the world if they’ve almost died or are ill. In the movies, if someone survives or overcomes or reconciles, the world is full of joy and wedding reception dancing and perpetual flowers (otherwise known as plastic) and roosters called Shiny and Speckles. In my ‘close call’ mind, because I was oh-so-willing to miraculously forgive and reconcile, this meant that everyone else was too. Surely they would be willing to if they knew that I had almost died. This was love, after all.

So I contacted everyone who had flashed before my eyes, people I considered my family, starting with the boyfriend I had at that time. I cheated and started with a ‘verbal’ thank you – phone call.

“Sam, I woke up this morning not dead. Thank you for encouraging me last night to go to the hospital. No, I’ll never eat kale and egg spaghetti again. I know you were wondering why I was calling you while my throat was closing up instead of going to the hospital or calling an ambulance. Egg and kale together make a person irrational. I though it would be romantic if it was your voice I heard last, in case. All I can say is I love you like you love someone when you’re drunk dialing them. If only that’s what I had been doing. Oh, how I wish I’d been drunk.” I confess I muttered that last part to myself.

He really appreciated it.

With that encouragement, after calling the most immediate people in my life, I moved on to writing to former friends, partners, and co-workers.

“Dear Kathy, just to let you know I almost died, and I’m so grateful for everything you ever did for me, ever. I’m sorry we lost touch, I hope you’re doing well, and if there’s anything I can ever do, please let me know. I love you. It’s important to tell people you love them, in case you die or almost die.”

To which Kathy’s reply, like many former friends or co-workers, was, “Dear Heather, I’m glad you made it, and glad I could be of help that time you needed a stapler. All the best.”

Letters to former partners were a bit trickier.

“Dear Brice, I’m writing to thank you for everything you did for me when we dated. I almost died, but I made it. I really loved you back then, even though I know when I left it was weird. I’m sorry for the candy incident. I’ve always loved you, in some way. I have a wonderful partner who I think will understand about me writing this to you so I apologize if you have a spouse or partner or children who won’t. I should have tried to look that up on the internet, but I wasn’t sure if that was considered stalking, so I only looked enough to find out your address. Life is short, so love everyone everyday as much as you can, everywhere.”

Brice’s indicative response was, “Dear Heather, it’s good you’re alive, but I’m concerned about how you found my address. I do have a spouse, and she’s currently running around the house freaking out. She may file a restraining order, be warned. While I personally am weirdly flattered, I want to take this opportunity, since I have waited so long, to say our parting was such sorrow that the only sweet in it was the twenty pound bag of candy we threw at each other in the gas station parking lot at two in the morning. It’s embarrassing to this day that our community service included cleaning the parking lot for twenty-eight days wearing a t-shirt that said ‘Crime: Throwing stolen candy from this gas-station at fellow human being in a fit of rage. Result: Crime doesn’t pay. X brand sweets on sale now at this and other neighborhood gas stations. Shop local.” Do you know how difficult that is to explain to employers?  It makes no difference whatsoever that we weren’t drunk, not one regrettable bit. Please don’t contact me again.”

Alan simply said, “Dear Heather, I’m sorry I don’t know you. Glad you made it. Peace out.”

Jack went the payback fantasy route: “Dear Heather, I’ve been looking everywhere for you. I’ve never stopped loving you ever since I saw you throwing candy at Brice in Backwater’s gas-station,” followed a few weeks’ later by, “I’ve never stopped loving you was a poor choice of words. I mean, you chose Brice over me and throwing candy at each other was our thing! We’re done.”

I didn’t even know we’d started again. I reacted badly. The more reactionary letters I received, the more thank you letters I wrote. On a mission, I turned them into letters to the editor, plays, movie scripts, short stories, nearly completed novels, and columns in newspapers. My master’s thesis became a creative project on the effects of egg and kale spaghetti induced anaphylactic shock hallucination on smart decision-making. I did all of this from the comfort of my couch-surfed best friend’s house, since my boyfriend and I were taking a small permanent break from each other.

I moved to another country, and my health took a turn for the worse, which only became more fuel for the fodder. From sheer lack of energy, I cottoned upon the idea of listening as a form of metaphorical thank you letter. As it turned out, this was even worse than writing because it meant I had to actually listen to other peoples’ experiences, thoughts and feelings, rather than just their thank you’s.  I lasted a week, until, overwhelmed with how needy people are, I had to shut that listening stuff down.

Then I found out I had cancer. On the one hand, this was just bad. On the other, this was a full-fledged all out manna from heaven, light shining in the darkness, come to Jesus message that it was okay to renew my thank you letters campaign and never have to listen to anyone again. I rummaged through my history to figure out who I hadn’t already written, and came up with a Holy Grail list. Once I completed my surgery and RAI, I ran headlong back into the cause, morally determined, akin to setting a paper boat alight on the River Clyde in Scotland and thinking it would sail to the Tennessee River.

“Dear Sam, while I’m recovering from cancer, I wanted to write to thank you again. I’ve learned my lesson, and am now an ill health anti-stigma activist. Love is only good if you’re doing good in the world, which I know you are because you are making some really cool graphic novels that show how helpful certain plant medicinals are for health issues. Keep up the good work.  Please donate to this cause.”

Sam, who had once been so understanding, replied, “Dear Heather, cancer, that’s a bummer. Who did you tick off in a past life?  You’re like a genetic dumping ground!  Ha ha. No seriously, thank you for your letter. I’ve been able to use it as a graphic representation on ‘how to lose most of your friends in one hour’ bespoke posts on my social media feed. I donate to the best cause – me.”

Talk about tough love. Clearly I needed to re-evaluate. My hallucinations may have been a little off that night in the emergency room.

The day I stopped writing thank you letters, I was dressed in black, with chains and ribbons and in heels, standing in front of an actor in a crowd, telling him I was a cancer survivor who had always loved him, and how vitally important his acting was, while next to me stood a man dressed as a squid. We carried signs saying “Love is never having to give up plastic flowers and roosters named Shiny and Speckles. And joy.”

He said to the crowd, “I’ve never met this woman, so she can’t possibly love me, and it’s scary to just meet someone who’s had cancer since I don’t know what to say or do, but she’s right about one thing:  being creative, expressing ourselves, is how we show love to ourselves and others and how we heal. We’re all creative in our own way.” He looked at our costumes. It was understandable. We looked cool.

So there it was. Writing thank you letters, forged in a panicked, but exceptionally creative, mind in the middle of a near death experience, was really all about not dying without knowing and expressing love. All I had been missing was a black costume with chains, ribbons and heels, an actor, and a man dressed like a squid.